Patriarch of Historic Napa Vineyard is 101 years and still going strong

Peter Mondavi (centre) surrounded by his immediate family

Mira Advani Honeycutt was
lucky to have an opportunity to chat with Peter Mondavi Sr shortly before his 101st birthday, revelling in his reminiscences and homespun business philosophy

The patriarch of the historic Charles Krug Winery, Peter Mondavi Sr, who celebrated his 101st birthday in November, is the oldest vintner in Napa Valley, California — and perhaps in the United States. “I never thought of any business other than the wine business. In fact, I still come here every day,” he told me when I interviewed him in his office at the Charles Krug Winery in June 2013. He was then approaching his 99th birthday and, as was his daily routine, walked up the exterior metal staircase to the second floor of the building for our meeting. I was honoured to attend Peter Sr.’s 99th birthday celebration that also marked the unveiling of the new hospitality centre in 2013.

One question puzzled me. As the winery had undertaken a multi-million dollar renovation, which involved converting the redwood cellar into a hospitality centre why not install an elevator in the vintage office building? “My dad’s too cheap,” chuckled his son, Peter Mondavi, Jr., when we met this year at the winery in St Helena. He noted that his dad is in good health and continued to make daily visits to the winery for a couple of hours every afternoon until he reached the age of 100. It’s only now, when he’s turned 101, that he’s narrowed down his visits to a couple of times a week.

And, yes, he still walks up the staircase, all 32 steps. “With the help of a cane to stabilise him,” said Peter Jr. Accompanied by his son Peter Jr. on that June day, we settled in the modest office. Taking a cue from his son, I asked the patriarch if I could address him as Dad also. He nodded a “yes” with a laugh and a twinkle in his eyes.

Mondavi Senior was born in the town of Virginia, Minnesota, the youngest of four children. His parents Cesare and Rosa had emigrated from Sassoferrato, Italy in 1908. The family eventually moved to California’s Lodi wine region and in 1922 Cesare started a successful business shipping wine grapes to fellow Italian immigrants in Minnesota. The family’s formal entrance into the wine business began in 1943 with the purchase of the historic Charles Krug winery, the first commercial winery in Napa Valley, founded by the Prussian immigrant, Charles Krug in 1861.

Mondavi spoke with respect and fondness of his hard-working father, Cesare, who laboured in the iron mines in Minnesota. “My father didn’t have a full education but he was a business man.” He eventually gave up mining to open a small grocery store. Here, his customers hankered for homemade wine and encouraged him to go to California for the grapes. “It was amazing what he accomplished, shipping grapes from California,” marvelled his son. From such a small beginning, he realized his goal to own a winery when he purchased the Krug Winery. “He was very capable, I learnt much from him,” said Peter Mondavi, while admitting, “I don’t like to move too fast so I couldn’t keep up with him!” The Mondavi family started with nothing more than the production of Vin Ordinaire. “All I remember now is building and rebuilding.”

He noted that when Cesare bought Charles Krug Winery it was in shambles. “It was practically abandoned, all we had was the walls of the winery and 175 upright redwood tanks.” The vineyards on the 145-acre property were run down and had to be replanted. Over the years additional vineyards have been added in the appellations of Howell Mountain, Carneros and Yountville, bringing the current total acreage to 850 acres, of prime Napa Valley vineyards.

Peter, who grew up in Lodi, graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Economics. “When I graduated, I worked at a couple of wineries in Lodi,” he said. “I have spent my whole life in the wine business — 70 years!” He also enrolled at University of California, Berkeley and under the tutelage of Professor William Cruess, undertook research on cold fermentation – and also discovered French oak!

Later, he spent three and a half years in the US Air Force on an airbase in England during the Second World War. “I was lucky I was not on the front line,” he laughed. His duty was in the supply division. During the war his father and older brother Robert built up the Charles Krug Winery. After his war service, Peter Mondavi returned to Krug and got involved in the family business.

Although he knew the basics of vineyard management, what he loved was the production aspect of the wine business. He is credited with pioneering the technique of cold fermentation, now an industry standard to produce crisp, off-dry, white wines. Red wines need colour extraction, explained Mondavi. So they are fermented at 85°F, more or less, depending on the variety. But when it comes to whites and rosé wines, cold fermentation is undertaken at 45°F to 50°F. “Eventually a lot of people followed my technique, but I never thought much about it,” he said humbly.

Another revolutionary change he brought about was the introduction of French oak barrels. “People here were using American oak which wasn’t very good,” he said of the $5 barrels. “We preferred shaved whiskey barrels and cured them with Vin Ordinaire to get the roughness out of the wood before putting in the Krug wine.” But when it came to French oak, the price differential was astronomical. “We hesitated for a long time before buying French oak – it cost $35 a barrel, too much money!” he exclaimed. Eventually, the winery did invest in French oak barrels though, and got their money’s worth by re-using them for secondary wines. Did it raise the price of the wine? “Yes, of course,”
Mondavi replied.

So what are the changes he has seen in his 70-year experience in the industry? The centenarian recollected the bygone days in the 1940s, when a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon cost one dollar. “Now it’s gone crazy, I’ve seen $400 bottles.” Yes, but Napa Valley now has world recognition, I commented. “Too much so,” he answered, with a laugh.

The highest price he ever paid for an acre, he recalled, was $8,000 in the early 1970s in Yountville (Krug was the first to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the cooler areas of Yountville and Carneros). So how does he feel about the current Napa Valley vineyard price that ranges between $100,000 and $300,000 per acre? “It’s a different world,” he responded, matter-of-factly. And the current trend of high alcohol wines? “They are wonderful to drink but you but you better not drink more than a glass,” he said with a laugh.

In 1965, Robert Mondavi left the family business after a dispute with his brother over the business direction of Krug, to found his own eponymous winery. “My brother was very progressive, he was going too fast for me,” said Peter Senior of his older brother, who died in 2008. Robert Mondavi was clearly the top promoter and is now regarded as the man who pegged Napa Valley firmly on the global wine map. But while he was with Krug, Robert demanded more than the winery could handle production-wise, according to his brother. That’s why Robert took his company public in order to achieve what he wanted, he commented. “For me, that would be the the kiss of death; I wouldn’t dare go public,’” said the patriarch. “Our family is here to stay.”

Indeed, Krug is among the last of the original “big boys,” noted Peter Jr. The Napa Valley wineries that existed during Prohibition included Charles Krug, Louis Martini, Beringer, Sutter Home, Christian Brothers, Inglenook, Beaulieu and Niccolini. “Most of them have been bought, sold or consolidated,” Peter Jr. commented. Only Charles Krug, Sutter Home, owned by the Trinchero family, and Niccolini continue to be family owned.  Both Marc and Peter Jr. work alongside their father as co-proprietors, but “Dad” is still very much involved as CEO and president of Charles Krug. His favourite place continues to be in the laboratory, tasting and evaluating wines.

What advice does the centenarian have for his six grandchildren who are all involved in some aspect of the family business? “All I can say is to be cautious and think twice about things and look forward to what you want to do,” was his simple answer.

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